Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

If I were king of the forest

Recently I’ve been contemplating courage – the role that quality has played in my life and the degree to which I’m not feeling it at the moment. I’m not feeling a lot of things; depression has me operating on a narrow bandwidth at the moment and I’m trying to find things I could change that would help with that.

Often people think about courage as a response to fear. Courage is what you call upon to square up to threatening situations. I assume I’ve still got it in me to show up for the things that must be done, but I’ve not been tested in a while on that score. I’m really happy not to be tested and am in no hurry to have to be brave about anything.

The courage I’m missing is more of a state of being. I used to have more boldness, and a willingness to go open hearted into the world and throw myself fully into things. I’ve become cautious, wary, mistrustful. It’s not been an irrational or unreasonable process, not even slightly. It might even represent something like wisdom. However, I don’t like this version of me. I liked me better when I was a bit less sensible and a lot more open and available.

It’s not as simple as choosing differently. There’s an emotional exhaustion underpinning all of this. Experiences have taken a toll, and the prospect of pouring from an empty cup is unbearable. But perhaps that means the question is really about how to refill the empty cup. 

Part of the point of living with courage is to be fearless in face of uncertainty. To love without hesitation, unafraid of whatever does or does not result from that. To give, to care, to show up… That was easier to do when I felt that I made a difference and had things to offer. To find my courage again I need to find a sense of purpose and worth. I need to be able to imagine that showing up fearless and wholehearted is worth something in some way, and not just to me.

How many times can a person get this sort of thing wrong before they stop believing in it? I’ve got a lot of things wrong. I’ve messed up really badly with a number of people along the way – perhaps I chose the wrong people, but there’s an exhaustion that comes from having done the wholehearted thing and have everything I was trying to do fall apart in my hands, yet again. Love like you’ve never been hurt is a bloody difficult thing to aspire to, and nobody talks about what happens when the hurt level starts to compromise your underlying ability to love.

I don’t have answers at the moment, but it seems productive to frame the questions. I don’t want to be closed and anxious. I also don’t want to mess things up by being too intense (I got called weird and creepy a few years ago, that one still haunts me). 

I suspect that reclaiming my courage and my former way of being in the world is going to depend on finding spaces where that’s actually wanted and welcome. I may need help with this. I’m exploring that too, albeit cautiously at the moment.

Do we choose how we react?

It’s one of those toxic positivity ideas – that we can always choose how we react. It blatantly isn’t true – torture and brainwashing alike exist because we know perfectly well that in the right conditions people are robbed of their ability to choose how they react. We know that trauma often leaves people unable to control their reactions to certain situations. If we’ve been taught to respond in a particular way, it can take a lot of work to change our reactions.

Making it all about how a person chooses to react provides effective cover for bullies. It’s not them bullying you, it’s you choosing to feel this way about the situation! I’ve seen this in action and it is unpleasant indeed. It can protect people from looking at their own behaviour and actions, making the person who has been hurt wholly responsible for the situation. 

If your reactions are actually pretty reasonable and the situation itself isn’t, then a focus on how you react isn’t going to help. It can be a distraction from holding boundaries, seeking help or demanding better. If, for example, you are depressed because you are exhausted, choosing to react differently means getting to still be exhausted while gaslighting yourself over the depression. This only makes things worse. Sometimes the key to improving a situation is not changing your attitude to it, but getting the shit sorted out, which may involve getting others to take more responsibility.

People don’t tend to wave this sort of content about in response to joy. The odds are the only time you will have a conversation about how you choose your responses, is when you’re expressing ‘negative’ emotions. This can be a shut-down. All emotions are valid. Grief, sorrow, anger, resentment, bitterness and regret are all valid human emotions and you may need to work them through in order to either get somewhere better or figure out how to carry them. There’s nothing wrong with this – it’s actually the healthier choice.

Supportive people will help you work through whatever you are feeling. They will validate you, comfort you and help you find ways through. They may help you explore different possible responses to situations or suggest other ways of thinking about things, but they won’t invalidate your feelings. Toxic people will tell you that you get to choose how you feel – implying that you should have chosen a different response, and may even act like this information is a fabulous and benevolent gift.

I over-explain

I over-explain because I think I’m the problem and if I tried harder to make sense, things would work out better.

I do it from long-term knowledge based on the experience of other people, that you may find me weird or incomprehensible, and that it is not enough for me to say ‘I need’ or ‘I feel.’ I expect to have to justify what I’m doing or asking for, and to be able to demonstrate what makes it normal, reasonable or proportionate. 

I desperately want to be understood. I want to make sense. I crave understanding. Sometimes I end up writing very long emails, because I need an ‘ok, that makes sense now. I get it.’ I don’t expect to make sense up front, but I’d really like to try and be more coherent and comprensible.

I over-explain because I hope that you care enough to want to listen. I crave acceptance. I aim to be tolerable and I always feel that if I made more sense I would be easier to tolerate. Also most of the time I have a pretty good idea about why the weird things about me are the way they are. 

I invest a lot of effort in trying to understand other people because I really do want to make the best sense I can of whatever’s going on for other people. I’ll happily take your word for it, if there are things you can’t do, or can’t bear or you need me to be patient with. But give me the chance to understand and I’ll try my best. I like it when people explain. I forget sometimes that not everyone even likes explanations.

I have (mostly) learned my lesson, that explanations are not always good, and that long emails seem threatening or invasive to some people. I have learned that asking to be heard and understood can be asking too much. I don’t try to explain as much as I used to. I try to gather evidence that you might be open to that, but it isn’t always easy to tell.

Sometimes I explain and what I get reflected back is a sense of what a broken, ruined thing I am, how hard to deal with. So damaged. I hate the way that explaining sometimes means that all a person then sees is where I am broken, or vulnerable, or limited. I don’t want the explanations to be the sum and total of how I am. But if you decide I’m a pathetic wreck you might not listen when I talk about what I can do, what I am doing.

Sometimes I don’t even try to explain to the person in question, because I am sure I will never make sense, or it just doesn’t matter to them. Too many times along the way I’ve explained my need for a place to belong and offered whatever good I could bring in exchange for a place at the table and that doesn’t reliably play out well. I try to bring my own table, make my own spaces. Sometimes I just blog about it, when I’m especially haunted by memories of trying to explain and not having that go well.

If nothing else, it gives me a chance to check that I do at least make some kind of sense to myself.

The language of mental illness

I notice that I feel more comfortable writing ‘mental health problems’ than ‘mental illness’ because the second option seems so much more loaded. The words we use to talk about mental illness are problematic, too. Anxiety and depression are words that really don’t convey the life destroying nature of being overwhelmed by those things.

Years ago, a doctor gave me a questionnaire that talked about being anxious and fearful. I wasn’t those things – I was overwhelmed by terror on a daily basis and unable to function as a consequence and I could not express the severity of my situation in the terms the survey offered. I was then given a CBT handbook to help me manage those small fears that will go away if only you push back against them. Only I was terrified, all the time, thanks to the genuinely threatening things that were going on in my life.

Depression, as a term does not convey the state of being so weighted down that you no longer know how to move. It does not express the experience of being so numb that you no longer seem like a proper person on the inside. Depression does not convey the utter despair and hopelessness that sometimes kills people. Talking about the fatigue that comes with depression does not express what it’s like to be so overwhelmed that even the idea of trying to do something is unbearably exhausting. 

‘Triggering’ is a word that has been sorely abused by people deliberately minimising how trauma impacts on people. Triggering as a word is not adequate to express the horror and loss of control of finding that your mind has been thrown back into reliving traumatic experiences from your history. The word ‘trauma’ alone does not do enough to convey to untraumatised people what that kind of experience this means. And I don’t want to expand on that because not triggering the traumatised folk is a consideration alongside wanting to educate those who don’t really get it.

‘Personality disorder’ is an awful term that has stigma hard wired into it. It’s also a really problematic area of diagnosis – it’s just a label, it doesn’t represent anything that can be measured. How do you tell between these ‘disorders’ and perfectly reasonable trauma responses? How do you tell between trauma in undiagnosed neurodivergent adults, and ‘personality disorders’? This is an area where the problematic language represents a lot of problematic thinking. If this isn’t familiar territory, have a look at the ‘symptoms’ for schizophrenia and consider how many of those might be caused by trauma and by real threats that are assumed not to exist. What happens to an abused teen whose parents frame their behaviour as delusional? 

Often, the official language to describe conditions comes from an unaffected observer, not the people having the experience. This isn’t a neutral process, and the stigma against mental illness and neurodivergence is massive and longstanding. And please, if we’re going to label murderers as being mentally ill, could we at least have a specific label for that illness rather than making it seem like mentally ill people are dangerous to those around them. We’re not. Most of us are far more likely to harm ourselves than anyone else.

Being High Maintenance

I’ve spent most of my life thinking of myself as a difficult person and trying not to be too much trouble for the people around me. It’s a way of living that has involved a lot of masking, and muting, ignoring my own feelings and generally being uncomfortable. In recent weeks I’ve done a lot of deliberate re-thinking around all of this.

One of the things that led me to the rethink was recognising how I feel about the high maintenance people in my life. There have been people I’ve stepped away from because I found them exhausting – people who seemed invested in drama for the sake of it, and/or who were relentlessly wallowing in misery over relatively small problems. That may be judgemental on my part, but I took my time coming to those conclusions.

I have high maintenance people who need a lot of input – usually emotional and intellectual input. I’m not so good at the tactile stuff so the people in my life with significant tactile needs tend not to bring that to me. I’ve spent years figuring out the warning signs for people I care about needing more than they are getting emotionally and mentally. I’ve developed strategies for helping people be a bit more comfortable around this. I enjoy doing it. I enjoy the challenge, the figuring out and the getting things right. The people in my life who need a lot from me are not a problem to me.

This got me thinking that perhaps it is ok to be high maintenance. If I don’t find it an issue in others, why should I consider it a problem in myself? It is definitely true that I will be an issue for some people. I get bored with trivial, superficial things. I need a steady supply of ideas and creativity to engage with. I crave intensity. There have been people for whom all of that was a problem, but that simply means we were not well suited to each other – there should be no value judgement involved. That I was judged over it and found problematic is not a measure of me.

There’s a relief in saying yes, I am high maintenance in some ways. Yes, that’s fine, that’s part of who I am. I am not going to be ideal for everyone. Some people are going to find me far too much trouble and that’s also fine, they are allowed. I do not have to be smaller and tidier to make them comfortable. I don’t have to stay around placating people who do not meet my needs and who do not like how I actually am. It’s turning out to be a liberating, affirming sort of process.

Excitement is the best magic

This winter I have been obliged to think about what lifts my spirits. I struggle a lot with depression, especially in the cold, grey months of the year and especially when my body is unwell. There’s been a lot of that lately. I’ve come to the conclusion that while there are no 100% reliable magic bullets for anything, excitement is about as close as it gets.

Excitement is apathy’s natural predator. It also deals with invasive problems like despair and disenchantment. When there is excitement there is often also hope, activity and room for joy. Having things to be excited about can pull me out of terrible headspaces.

There is, in here somewhere, an excitable inner child. It’s complicated. Like most younger humans I had a fair capacity for throwing myself wholeheartedly at things. Excitement is also something I remember getting told off for, a lot. On the grounds that I would end up in tears if I got too excited, or would make myself sick, or wouldn’t be able to sleep.

There was a night at an event last year when I was so excited about so many things that I really couldn’t sleep and just lay there being excited. That wasn’t really a problem. And yes, sometimes if I get really emotional I cry, and that’s ok. There’s nothing wrong with crying. As for the throwing up – I don’t think that ever really happened and it’s a risk I’m prepared to take.

I need that inner child excitement, unfettered by anyone else’s beliefs and expectations. I need the people who make me feel excited. I need to do things I can feel excited about. Perhaps most importantly, I need the space to be someone I can feel excited about. I need to squeal and roll around with pure delight. I need to be so excited that I can’t actually sleep. I always did.

For me, that particular emotion is not only powerful but is the foundation for most of my other positive feelings. An absence of excitement will leach the joy and hope out of me. I’m now trying to work out what I can do on my own to cultivate more excitement in myself, and who I can collaborate with to create more excitement generally. 

Jealousy is not love

All too often, when jealousy is presented in stories, it’s portrayed as being related to love. Jealousy is not a facet of love, it is a very specific emotion in its own right, and one that often is in opposition to love, care and respect. It’s a really destructive emotion.

Jealousy often involves wanting what someone else has. Envy is the healthy take on this, because with envy you can look at what someone else has and say ‘I want that too’ and go after it and everyone can have nice things. Jealousy wants specifically what the other person has, and wants to take it from them. It pushes the person feeling it to destroy someone else’s joy out of resentment.

Jealousy is the desire to make the other person smaller. The person who is jealous of attention paid to their partner, or of anyone their partner invests in, is not protecting love with this feeling. Jealousy can be the emotion that justifies controlling behaviour. It’s jealousy that prompts someone to try and limit, punish or control the person they claim to be in love with.

Equally, trying to cause jealousy is not about love, it’s about control. Flirting with someone else to make your partner jealous is emotionally manipulative and hurtful. There’s no love in that.  Parading success or property in the hopes of causing jealousy is about wanting to make other people feel smaller, and inadequate.

Violence justified by jealousy is not an expression of love. We urgently need to stop telling stories in which male jealousy is in any way romanticised – especially when it also involves violence towards women. (This is particularly a romance genre issue – jealous, violent women don’t tend to show up as part of stories claiming to be focused on love although you do find them slapping faces in older films). Anyone hitting someone on the basis of feeling that their romantic relationship is threatened… should not be excused in any way. We also need to stop telling stories where jealousy is portrayed as a reasonable justification for murder. Anything in the same vein as Tom Jones singing Delilah. Anything justified as a ‘crime of passion’. It’s not passion, and it isn’t love.

Running after people

Generally speaking, I won’t fight for attention or for a place in someone’s life. It’s a longstanding policy. I don’t do jealousy (I do envy) so if someone tries to push those buttons with a view to making me compete, I will bow out as fast as I can. I’ve been there a few times, although not recently. In some contexts it makes a lot of sense. Younger me was quite into having strategies for dealing with things and nuance is something I’ve had to learn over the years.

On the whole, if people use rejection as a way to make you try harder, I don’t want to indulge them or play along. Not everyone who might push you away is trying to manipulate you. People do it when they are hurt, or afraid, when they feel guilt ridden and don’t know how to fix things. People push people away to protect them – around both mental and physical illness, around grief and life challenges. Sometimes it’s about being too proud to admit there’s a problem. So when people go quiet, or seem to be ghosting, or even actively push me away I’m no longer so confident about what that means.

I’m not good at rejection. It’s part of why I often prefer to hold really firm lines on this. I don’t want to jump through hoops and be judged not good enough. I’ve done too much of that in the past. I take a lot of persuading to run after someone who appears to be running away from me. They have to be exceptional, and important to me, and I need some reason to think it isn’t just manipulation.

It’s a really exposed thing to do, going after someone who has pushed you away. Most of the time it isn’t worth it, but sometimes it can be a life and death issue. It’s not always easy to tell. Often it can be enough to just keep an open mind and wait to see if the person comes back, and be ok with them if they do. Some people really do need running after, and need perhaps more than it is fair to ask anyone to give. But, life isn’t always fair or reasonable, and sometimes it takes extraordinary effort to get things done.

Different kinds of trauma

Most research into trauma is based on male experiences – especially the experiences of male soldiers. It focuses on the idea that you have experienced a single, or a small number of traumatic things and that healing comes from contextualising it and de-normalising it. The expectation of flashbacks to specific events as a PTSD response comes with this sort of trauma.

Of course not all trauma takes this shape. If you grew up neglected, or in an emotionally abusive family, there may not be any big events you can point at. Racial abuse can often take the form of relentless microaggressions – any one alone doesn’t look like much, but added together they become traumatic. Gaslighting depends on attrition, not big events. Economic abuse tends to be a long term project. Workplace bullying can be insidious and long term. People emerge from these situations traumatised and also not fitting the traditional model we have for dealing with event based trauma.

Then there’s the intersections – to be traumatised by living as a neurodiverse person while also having to deal with racism and economic abuse. To suffer medical trauma because of your sexual identity and also having to deal with workplace bullying and one instance of being beaten up… People can have multiple trauma sources and those interact with each other and impact on how, and if you might be going to heal.

I’ve experienced event-based trauma and the kinds of invasive thoughts and flashbacks that go with it. I’ve also experienced the kind of trauma that is built of smaller things over longer timeframes. Being triggered around that is qualitatively really different and much harder to spot. If you’re back in the trenches with the shellfire, then afterwards you have a pretty good idea what just happened. If you’re back in the hideous miasma of an awful childhood, or a toxic workplace or an abusive relationship, that mist can settle over you without it being obvious what’s happened.

With that kind of triggering, you can end up thinking, feeling and reacting as though you were back in hell. It can make the current situation look like the previous one. All the coping mechanisms come out – but they won’t be relevant or helpful if you aren’t in the same situation. They may even harm you. Everything is incredibly confusing and disorientating and you may feel as though you have gone entirely mad.

Getting help for complex trauma is much more complicated. Finding an expert who understands the layers of things you may be dealing with isn’t easy. Even recognising that you’ve got complex trauma impacting on you can be hard because when it isn’t event based, it plays out so much more subtly.

What does it mean to love?

It’s been a curious few months with regards to my emotional life and some of my key relationships. Not least that one of those relationships is starting to look like it was never that real anyway. What even is love? It’s a key question to ask, and not just when things are bumpy in a relationship.

For me, love is rooted in the everyday. It’s about dedicating to share your life with someone – in whatever way you choose and to whatever degree you’ve settled on. That sharing can take many forms. Love doesn’t always mean romance. Romance doesn’t necessarily mean sex. Sex doesn’t automatically equate to love. Any of these things might, or might not be combined with cohabiting, or co-working, or co-parenting. Love means investing in someone else. It means caring about them, and giving time to that.

For me, mutual understanding is an important thing in a relationship. I need to understand – I don’t tend to cope well with things I can’t make sense of. I will invest copious amounts of time in trying to understand other people’s history, experience, perspective, way of being in the world and so forth. If I care about someone, I will do my best to be the person they need me to be – mindful of their needs, preferences and issues. 

Sharing yourself with another human can feel incredibly vulnerable. But this vulnerability is itself the basis for deep connection and mutual understanding. Tom and I have been exploring this in earnest for a while now. I have work to do around being better at saying when I’m uncomfortable – I have history around this. I can do better. At the moment I’m working on being honest about small discomforts and making space for that. I hate eating loud food. Some kinds of touch really stress me out – hair in my face, especially. That kind of thing. Stuff I’ve ignored and overwritten for other people’s convenience. But, if I’m honest about it, I make more room for a better quality of relationship.

I’ve also learned, in an entirely different interaction, about the importance of being able to hold boundaries. I have refused certain kinds of treatment. Being ignored is not ok. Being blamed and made responsible for things I did not do, is not ok. Without honest and respectful communication, there is no relationship. I’m not interested in being used, especially not as an emotional punch bag. I’m waiting to see if this person has it in them to do better, but I am not optimistic.

Love is not an event. It’s not a grand gesture. It is not what happens in films. What it means to love is very much about what we do day by day, how we treat each other, how we invest in each other and what we share.